A frightening chain of logic

I’m hardly the first to do this sort of thing, but here goes:

I’m showing one of my classes a bit of Blade Runner this morning. I think of Blade Runner, which came out in 1982, when I was nine, as a recent film, more or less. It is 27 years old.

When I went to college, these films were 27 years old. They might as well have been the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This reality hit home when I noticed that the year of Blade Runner‘s dystopian future is 2019. As in, a year in which I hope I’ll still have my current car.

The rush of freedom

I want to begin describing what I’m trying to do with the advanced seminar I’m teaching right now, a class focused on the intensive study of Ulysses.

I’ll start with a simple contrast.

Here is the current version of a response assignment I have used for years, at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. As you can see, the assignment is longer than the responses themselves; the assignment is long, detailed, procedural.

Here, by contrast, is the version of that assignment I have given to the Ulysses seminar: short, suggestive, non-directive. I wouldn’t attempt this one without a great deal of confidence in the ability and ambition of the students.

You can see the results to date on the class blog: Prairie Bloom.

Week one of teaching with blogs

The advent of this blog coincides with my embrace of a new set of digital tools for teaching. I’ll explain what I mean by that statement and report on progress and problems in the coming weeks.

I recently described the process of giving my first blog assignment in the course we call Tutorial. Now I’ve completed my first week of teaching with blogs in two courses: the Tutorial and a seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m encouraged by the early results.

I’ll explain the Ulysses bit later because it’s complicated, but the Tutorial offers a direct comparison between an old Blackboard discussion board assignment and a new WordPress blog assignment. (For those who don’t know: the Blackboard discussion board function is part of a useful but clunky and unattractive software package for classes. Every Grinnell student is used to using our Blackboard interface for classes and administrative tasks.)

Moving from my last Tutorial to this, I kept

1. the same topic (comedy),
2. the same content on the syllabus (mostly–I do tinker)
3. the same response assignment, and
4. the same privacy settings limiting access to the posts to the people in the class. (The seminar is posting publicly.)

The only change I made to the first-week assignment was shifting the environment from the usual Blackboard interface to a sparkling new WordPress group blog, created just for this set of students. The students picked up the WordPress routine with very little trouble (not much more than Blackboard usually causes).

When the first group of students posted its first response assignment, I was surprised to see a dramatic new effect: they wrote the longest set of responses I have ever gotten from an introductory class. (A good set, too!) I have always found new students, even very good ones (such as my wonderful former Tutorial students–hi!), reluctant to write at length on class discussion boards; this week, for the first time, I found myself reminding a class of the assignment’s word limit after they posted their first responses.

Based on this experience and the first posts from my Ulysses group, I strongly suspect that the attractiveness of the blog environment, which resembles high-quality websites everywhere (thank you, WordPress), prompted the students to a new expansiveness, a new sense of authorship. We’ll see what happens as this and subsequent semesters unfold.

Teaching meets parenting

A change of pace:

Last week, my four-year-old son asked us at dinner what poetry is. My wife got going on a good four-year-old-level answer, and then Pete volunteered,

“A poem is when you read something, and you see things that are different.”

And we said, bwa? I have no idea where this came from, and I don’t mean that in a “Wow, this kid is an inexplicable genius” kind of way. I mean that we can’t remember saying or reading anything remotely like this to Pete, and it isn’t the kind of thing we think he’d run into at daycare. And although we’ve read tons of poems to him, they tend, of course, to be rhyming, story-driven kids’ poems, so it’s hard to imagine him deriving such a definition from that. He has never said anything I found so mysterious.

In the moment, of course, I didn’t tell him any of this. I did what any parent would do: I scolded him for wordiness, made him revise out the two needless “to be” verbs, and showed him how he could express the same sentiment directly as “poetry transforms vision.” Then I explained how even better formulations might reflect the transformative power of poetry in their language, and sent him to bed with a copy of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and my lecture notes.

College students’ time

“[C]ollege students really don’t work that hard, on average.”

So concludes Chad Aldeman in this post on The Quick and the Ed, and the cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics support the claim: on average, full-time college students put a little more than three hours per day into education, for a total of about 16 hours per five weekdays. As Aldeman points out, this does not include work they do on weekends. I believe that Grinnell students do much more academic work than the average, for a variety of academic, cultural, and socioeconomic reasons, but that’s not my reason for posting.

Aldeman cites these statistics as part of an effort to deflate “the face-to-face gold standard”; he points out that comparisons of classroom and online learning sometimes reveal that some studies show online courses producing superior learning outcomes, sometimes (as Sara Goldrick-Rab puts it) “because the amount of actual instructional time in online courses is greater than that in classroom settings.”

My question is this: what would the data look like for classroom courses with substantial online components, components that do create increased instructional time outside of class? Do online activities replace other kinds of instruction, or do they increase the overall time teachers and students spend on classroom-based courses? Reader, have you any thoughts?

Teaching with blogs, episode 1

I gave my first blog assignment this week.

I’ve done email and discussion board assignments for many years, but this was a gen-you-ine blog assignment for my Tutorial.

I had wondered how well students would pick up the blog interface. (It’s a private group blog on WordPress.com.) Although few, if any, of them had blogged before, they all registered and posted with no trouble. The only minor problem involved tags: I asked all the students to attach the same tags to their posts, and only about half of them did. Of the others, one made up his own tags, and the others added nonw.

No problem. I fixed the issue for the first set of posts and planned to note it in class this morning. I present to you a study in contrast:

Plan! Have computer and projector ready to go, show students how to enter tags on WordPress, ask them to add the required tags to each of their posts.

Execution! Ignore the computer, paraphrase the introductory chapter of David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (with substantial detail about the Staples prototype store), argue for tagging as a wonderfully flexible reinvention of hierarchical categories. As students pack up at the end of class, remember the computer and say, “So here’s where you enter the tags, OK?”

And that was fine. I think I liked the execution better than the plan, in fact, but I did realize after class that, for better or worse, I am becoming a different kind of teacher.

Wait: am I an academic?

Am I an academic?

Yesterday’s post by the excellent Danah Boyd has me wondering. Boyd a researcher at Microsoft Research New England (on the blogroll to the right as “apophenia”), yesterday blogged about her answers to the question, “Am I an academic?” Boyd’s description of scholarly life in a research lab is fascinating; her description of the academic life is harrowing–but it doesn’t describe my life as an academic.

I don’t mean simply that I find academic life more enjoyable than you’d guess from Boyd’s description, though that’s true. I mean something more fundamental: the whole complex of institutional structures, professional incentives, and teaching environments that Boyd evokes arises from an assumption that being an “academic” means teaching at a research university. And that assumption pervades most writing about the digital humanities. When I see descriptions of how academics teach, or do scholarship, or hold office hours, or do most anything else, writers almost never capture my experience at a liberal arts college. Or my mother’s experience at a branch campus of a community college. Or my dad’s experience at a small liberal arts university. Or my brother’s experience at a New England preparatory academy. We all have advanced degrees in the humanities, and we’re all, I think, academics.

One aim of this blog, then, is to enter conversations about teaching, scholarship, and the digital humanities from an unusual institutional position. I teach at Grinnell College, an institution fundamentally unlike the research universities I attended but also unlike my parents’ institutions and other types. Grinnell is small (about 1500 students), rural, Midwestern, highly selective, well endowed, teaching-oriented, and increasingly dedicated to interdisciplinarity and faculty-student research collaborations in all fields.

Teaching at Grinnell, I have no graduate students but terrific, ambitious undergrads. No immediate colleagues (in British Romantic literature) but a strong sense of interdisciplinary collaboration. No research library but skilled, flexible librarians. Good funding for scholarship but demanding institutional service obligations.

How do new models of networked teaching and scholarship translate to such an environment? In these new ways, can I be an academic, too? Let’s see.

Hello? World?

As you can see at the right (for now, at least), “Pages and Lights is Erik Simpson’s blog about teaching, the digital humanities, and the liberal arts college.”  I have touched on those subjects here and there in Underlying Logic, a general blog that will now, unburdened, crawl toward death.

(That, like the title of the blog, is an unfunny and obscure Shakespeare joke. For the record, the title is from Pericles, the unburdened thing from Lear. The excitement never stops at Pages and Lights.)

Since I started blogging, a new conversation about teaching and digitality has emerged, and I want in! Here, inspired by the likes of Cathy Davidson and David Silver, I will attempt a (relatively) focused exploration of teaching and learning, especially as they bake in the ovens of computer networks and liberal arts colleges. Away we go.

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